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Monday, September 9, 2013

Digging in the Archives - A (Long) Back Story

There is an old Victorian pie safe in the living room - the kind with a marble top, curved cornice and wire mesh sides. It's actually one of my favorite pieces of  furniture - from the Blakey house, passed on through my mother in law. I cleaned it out several years ago and hadn't really opened it up in ages except to cram more stuff inside. It dawned on me that if I was going years without using what was inside - maybe I didn't need to keep owning it. Maybe art supplies could go inside.

It turned out to be true on both accounts - there was a lot of stuff that I didn't need - and there is room inside for at least the basic art supply clutter - the things I need to put away when I'm finished so that the dining room table can be used to ... hold more clutter? Psyche. So it can be used to eat from, of course.

Anyway - deep within those Victorian crevices was a scrap book my mother kept of her violin playing daughter. Lots of old programs. A cluster of newspaper clippings. And this - one of two professional shots taken the year I was 10. I am guessing winter of 1963 because I'm playing a full sized violin You can see it's really too big for me - and I remember how hard it was to play because I had to stretch so far to play it. I still have tendon damage from being pushed too soon to play that violin. I can hear it pop whenever I try to lift something heavy with my left hand. Anyway, I don't think I got that till after Christmas.

A lot was going on that year besides getting a bigger violin. I also had the world's most evil school teacher and by the end of the school year I'd gained 10 lbs and had a report card riddled with F's.  The torture of a child in a classroom with an evil teacher is just one step below the Spanish Inquisition - and there was only one way I could resist that woman. I did absolutely nothing she assigned.

I was prepping for several big auditions, including one for a single slot at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for school aged children. Yes. I played for Ephraim Zimbalist.  My violin teacher said to be more competitive, I ought to take piano lessons too - which I did - from a very stern and scary nun at a local girl's school. In hindsight, she might not have been so bad - though plenty of former students I've talked to tell me that she was - but two scary women in one 10 year old's life was two too many.

There was something else, too. While I was a very talented violin player - I was keeping a deep secret from all the hovering grown-ups in my life. I could barely read music. A natural mimic I could hear something once and play it back immediately - so I was able to fake my way through all the stacks of music I was learning and, in fact, I could sort of pick out the notes one at a time, S L O W L Y , between lessons, so I could be sure I was getting it all right. But throw in a second clef that was different and look out Lucy - I was in deep trouble. I was enough of a musician to be a fair piano student but without being able to actually read two lines of music at the same time but I was an acute disappointment to that teacher.

She was very ambitious about her students and wanted her best ones to enter a competition held at Catholic University in D.C. in the springtime and though I didn't think I was good enough, she insisted I enter. As I remember it was a rather big piano competition with a somewhat smaller competition for kids who played Other Instruments. My parents entered me in both.

So. Yeah. That was a tough spring for me. I was never very good at fighting the adults in my world. A perfect little Virgo ENFP, I always did the best I could to please them, accepted that I was going to fail at least half the time and soothed my agony by promising myself that when I was finished high school I would be outta there. Which I was. But that spring I knew my parents expected me to win both competitions and since I did NOT get into Curtis, I knew I really had better perform. I wasn't too worried about the violin playing since ... there are always too few violinists and I was pretty much at the top of my 10 year old game. The piano, otoh - ugh. How I dreaded playing that in front of judges. A musician ... even a kid musician ... knows when she's ready to perform and when she's not and oh god I knew I was not ready.

That was the year my dad turned 39 and as his last grasp at his fleeting youth he bought himself a black Ford Glaxy 500 convertable with a red interior. This was in the days of the one car family and a man with 4 growing kids should have known better. Of course, this was also in the days when Daddy was King and he did whatever the heck he wanted - so 6 of us were stuffed into that macho car which I doubt he ever drove around in alone, when he could feel all studly and hot hot hot and flirt with young girls.

The car was delivered ... since he'd special ordered it ... on the Saturday of the music contest and we picked it up at the dealer on Broad Street on the way up to D.C. My grandmother and several aunts & uncles lived there and the whole family was going for the weekend. I bet we had the top down. I know it was well into spring. And when we got just north of Quantico on Rt. 1, that brand new stud-mobile car threw a rod. As luck would have it there was a Ford dealership back in the little village. A very grimy car dealer and a drug store and I don't think there was anything else. Dad managed to get the car to limp back to the dealer and there we spent the afternoon. I was never so happy in my life. I knew we'd never get to D.C. in time for me to play in that damned piano contest. We might not even have to go at all. The car was a wipe out. We sat in those sad looking dealer chairs for a while, wandered down to order hamburgers from the drug store counter, I remember Mama buying us candy, a rare treat. Daddy called his brother in Rockville MD and he drove down to get us. I had to change into my fancy dress in the dingy bathroom at the car dealers, trying hard not to touch anything because everything looked like it was crawling with cooties, but all the time I was praying "be late, be late, be late"

My prayers were only partially answered. We got to C.U. just as the judges were scoring the other pianists and true to form, my parents argued that I be allowed to compete since they hadn't finished judging. Just think. another 10 minutes and I could have been reprieved. Instead, those strange men looked at each other and then invited me up on stage. With slow dragging feet I climbed those enormous steps and plodded through my dreadful piece. I don't even remember what it was but I knew as I played that I was awful.

But like all awful things - it ended. I was safe inside my shell where - la la la you can't touch me - I'd retreat to whenever the grown up world was too scary. Once it was over it was easy peasy to walk across the campus and play in the violin competition. I actually won that one but I remember how utterly pissed off my piano teacher looked when I stepped down off the stage. I guess my bad playing made her feel like a bad teacher. She didn't know my secret. Heck. I barely understood it myself. I just know that at my next lesson - or maybe the one after that, she just told me to leave and not come back - which I gladly did not.

As for Daddy's lemon car - he eventually got a new one but I think he was already soured on the stud-mobile look because within a year he'd bought himself a Bigger Ford (because our family was a Ford family) an Important Executive looking LTD - about 4700 lbs of Detroit steel on a one acre sized chassis.

I took more piano lessons as I grew older. I also had that same pissed off piano teacher as a choir director in high school - because sometimes we're just fated to hang out with people who don't like us. She never once asked me to play the violin with the choir - even though she knew I was pretty durn good. She also never spoke my name without making it sound like she was spitting. But by then I had quit caring about what the grownups in my world wanted out of me. I could see high school graduation just around the corner and honestly - when you're that close to freedom you can put up with just about anything. 

But sometimes I wonder if things would have been different if I had felt I could trust those adults with my secret. eh. Long ago. We'll never know. 

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